DETROIT (AP) — Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock sent a group of skaters over the boards and onto the ice that wouldn't have cracked his lineup in recent years.
Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith — none of whom is older than 24 years old — were together with Carlo Colaiacovo and Danny Cleary — average players in their 30s — during a stretch of Monday night's 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
The Red Wings knew they would be challenged this season because seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom chose to retire, sturdy defenseman Brad Stuart wanted to play elsewhere and point-producing forward Jiri Hudler left in free agency.
A slew of injuries, the most combined by any NHL team, have made the obstacles even tougher to overcome.
"It's been exciting and invigorating to coach a team with a lot of kids," Detroit coach Mike Babcock insisted Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I've heard people say that we're not consistent, but I will say this is the most consistent group we've had in terms of preparation and work ethic since we've been here.
"Do we make mistakes and do things that make you scratch your head? Yeah, we've got kids playing a lot. But we compete for one and another and that's what we're still hanging in the playoff picture."
The Red Wings used to roll past teams, hoisting the Stanley Cup four times since 1997, but those days are over. Nothing comes easy anymore for them.
Detroit extended its playoffs streak last year as a fifth-seeded team and won only one playoff game in the first round against Nashville.
The Red Wings would be the sixth-seeded team in the Western Conference playoffs if they started Wednesday, but their 22nd straight postseason appearance is far from guaranteed. Detroit plays seven of its last 12 games in the lockout-shortened regular season on the road.
Phoenix, one of five teams within four points of the last playoff spot in the West, hosts the Red Wings on Thursday night
General manager Ken Holland doesn't plan to panic and make a move before the NHL trading deadline Wednesday unless he can add an impact player. Holland wrote in a text message that he couldn't predict the chances of pulling off a trade because there are too many moving parts.
Kind of like his roster.
By the Red Wings' count, injured players have missed 203 games due to various ailments and no team says it has been more banged up this season.
Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi and Darren Helm, each of whom was counted on to play key roles, have combined to play just 12 games this season. The team is hoping all of them come back at some point during the regular season.
"If we can get those guys back, we'll be better because the growth of our defense," Babcock said. " I like the process that we've been in with this group and with the fact that we're getting better."
The Red Wings have in fact won four of six — with one of those setbacks a humbling 7-1 loss Sunday at home to Chicago — and have had a winning record in each month this season.
Detroit can say it has two of the world's best forwards when Henrik Zetterberg, who has missed the last two games with a groin injury, and Pavel Datsyuk are playing. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has proven to be at least solid and the Lidstrom-less defense has been better than expected with Niklas Kronwall leading the way.
If the Red Wings can close the regular season well enough to be in the playoffs, forward Justin Abdelkader likes their chances.
"Especially in the Western Conference, anybody can beat anybody," Abdelkader said. "You just have to get in the playoffs, when anything can happen. Look at what happened with LA last season" when the Kings became the first eighth-seeded team to hoist the Stanley Cup.
While it might be a stretch to think the Red Wings can win their first championship since 2008, Abdelkader doesn't think anyone should count the franchise out during a period he calls "a transition" instead of a rebuilding season in the Motor City.
"We still have a lot of good pieces here and tremendous leadership and we have a backstop in Howie that bails us out when we need him to," Abdelkader said. "We definitely don't have some of the pieces that have led this team for so many years, but we've got leaders who have stepped up on ice with their play."
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